Monday 15 November 2010

Reading and writing

I still feel a moment of 'they're reading our books over there' parochial pride when I see New Zealand children's and YA authors getting mentioned in international magazines and blogs. In this piece on returning to reading YA fiction, American writer Elizabeth Bachner bookends her article with observations on Margaret Mahy's The Changeover

In the beginning of Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover, a teenage girl in New Zealand, Laura, picks up a bottle of shampoo called Paris. There’s a picture on it, of a lovely girl with the Eiffel Tower behind her bare shoulder, but the label is forced to tell the truth in tiny print: “Made in New Zealand, it said, Wisdom Laboratories, Paraparaumu.”

Just for a moment Laura had a dream of washing her hair and coming out from under the shower to find that she was not only marvelously beautiful but transported to Paris. However, there was no point in washing her hair if she were only going to be moved as far as Paraparaumu. Besides, she knew her hair would not dry in time for school, and she would spend half the morning with chilly ears. These were facts of everyday life, and being made in New Zealand was another. You couldn’t really think your way into being another person with a different morning ahead of you, or shampoo yourself into a beautiful city full of artists drinking wine and eating pancakes cooked in brandy.

If I need a good blow-out, I pick up Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. McCarthy's fatalism - his utter refusal to give you an easy ending - and his sparse, diamond-hard writing leaves me undone every time. So naturally, I'm inclined to disagree with Allen Barra over his argument that Larry McMurty's Lonesome Dove is a better Western than McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Then I recall that I haven't read either book, and update my Goodreads to-read list.*

Lev Grossman, author and Time magazine's book critic, blogs about the two kinds of writers: soloists and thieves. I wonder if this applies to artists as well? I know some artists who are particularly porous, and going to a new show is an experiment in guessing what they've been looking at recently.

I don’t understand how the Soloists do it. It’s like they’re sailing across the Atlantic without instruments — coolly, no map, no reference points, just navigating by the feel of the tiller. The Soloists I know avoid other novels like the plague when they’re writing. It’s like reading them will pollute their pure bloodlines or something.

As a Thief, I don’t have that need for purity. But I would give anything for that sense of absolute direction. Like perfect pitch — Soloists don’t need to tune to anything. To go back to the navigation metaphor, I’m constantly checking my GPS and taking sextant readings and heaving the log and shooting azimuths and God knows what else, just to make sure I haven’t wandered off the map into some bizarre territory where I’ve forgotten that sentences are supposed to have verbs in them or something.

In the New Republic, Elizabeth D. Samet writes about using Sherlock Holmes to teach first-year students at West Point. Samet is trying to tell her students that the knowledge they already have is importnant, and that the knowledge that they pick up as they move through life will be useful in unexpected ways:

I’ve taken to visiting 221B Baker Street on the first day of class because I can’t think of anyone who leverages knowledge more effectively.

I ask my students to read a passage near the beginning of A Study in Scarlet (the detective’s first appearance), in which Dr. Watson vainly attempts to itemize precisely what Holmes knows: next to nothing about literature, philosophy, astronomy, and politics; “practical” but idiosyncratic facts of botany, geology, anatomy, and British law; the most minute details of chemistry and “sensational literature.” After concluding his list by noting that Holmes not only “plays the violin well” but is also “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman,” Watson throws it into the fire “in despair” of ever figuring out what kind of profession could possibly require this eclectic catalogue of “accomplishments.”

Finally, two medical memoirs:

*Has anyone else ever been put off reading Lonesome Dove because the title sounds too like The Thorn Birds and you're still recovering from the you-knew-it-was-wrong-even-at-the-time pleasure of reading the latter in your early teens? Anyone?

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